Rome: The palaces of the people

Rome may still host royal visitors, but the capital's private mansions are now open to everyone

The usual Grand Prix-like roar of official mercury blue Lancias and twitching Paparazzi perched on 21st century Vespas commemorated the Queen's fourth Royal Visit to Rome and the Vatican this week.

The usual Grand Prix-like roar of official mercury blue Lancias and twitching Paparazzi perched on 21st century Vespas commemorated the Queen's fourth Royal Visit to Rome and the Vatican this week.

The pageantry may have changed over the centuries, but visiting queens of the past were afforded no less noisy a welcome. Indeed, an inscription on the Porta del Popolo in Piazza del Popolo shows Pope Alexander VII wishing Queen Christina of Sweden a "Felici fausto ingressui" (Happy and blessed entrance) to commemorate her arrival into Rome in 1665. Apparently the festivities included knights fighting and the slaying of what must have been a fairly comical dragon, with rockets firing out of its nostrils. The Queen was never to leave the city again.

For regally-inclined visitors, the city's royal residences are easy to find - mainly because many of the city's present art galleries were once private royal palaces. What forced the royal families to sell to the state was not simply the country becoming a republic, or a discredited monarchy, but a series of crushing 19th century financial catastrophes that ranged from stock crashes to property speculation to the Napoleonic Wars. Large tracts of the romantic gardens of these palaces were also eaten up by the new regime in a unified Italy.

While she was in town, our own Queen stayed at the Quirinale, the presidential palace atop one of Rome's legendary seven hills. First built by Gregory XIII in 1574 as a summer residence, it was originally intended as an escape from the stagnant humidity at the Vatican.

Later, the palace became the scene of papal deportation by Napoleon's decree. In 1848 uncompromising Roman liberals fired through the palace windows and burned down the doors, demanding a democratic programme which led to the short-lived Roman Republic and the abolishment of the Papal States. In 1870 the Pope moved out and the King moved in. Today, only the state rooms and large halls are open to the public. The Murano chandeliers and beautifully coloured mosaics set in the fireplaces came from Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli.

Elsewhere in the city, there is another palace worth visiting, the Borghese Gallery. Now modernised with all the facilities you can imagine, the building was on the verge of collapse 20 years ago. This is not strictly a royal palace, however, since it was never intended to be lived in but was constructed, 400 years ago, to house the Borghese collection of art and to become "a palace of pleasure" in the words of the then Pope's nephew.

With more masterpieces per square metre than probably any other gallery in Europe - including early sculptures by Bernini and works by Caravaggio and Titian - John Evelyn described it as: "in a word nothing but magnificent". The opening hours are impressive, too - until midnight on Saturdays.

One Roman palace is still in royal hands. The Doria-Pamphili Gallery is right on the busiest, and once noblest, of thoroughfares, the Via del Corso. Here, centuries ago, liveried servants would lower food baskets down into the street to be swiftly filled by the ranks of vendors waiting for trade below. These days, the palace's state and private apartments are open to the public. They are still run by the Doria-Pamphili family, though the roar of traffic passing by just a few metres from the front door creates a dreadfully proletarian cacophony.

The Quirinale Palace is on Piazza del Quirinale (00 39 6 46 99 25 68). It is open every Sunday, from 8.30am -12.30pm until January and tickets cost L12,000 (£3.70) per person (£2.50 concessions). The Borghese Gallery is on Piazza Scipione Borghese (00 39 6 32 81 01 for compulsory booked tickets). It is open Tues-Fri 9am-7pm, Sat 9am-midnight, Sun 9am-9pm. Tickets cost L12,000 (£3.70) per person (£2.50 concessions).

The Doria-Pamphili Gallery is on Piazza Collegio Romano (00 39 6 69 73 23). It is open daily from 10am-5pm (closed Thursdays). Tickets cost L13,000 (£4) per person (£3 concessions)